Biff Bash Bosh was a 900m gully off the Tatina glacier in the kichatna spires first cli bed by Simon hitchens and Twid M7 Vi. Over a 24 hr push
Steak and Mash in Alaska
by Simon Hitchens
The single prop ‘Otter’ revved its engine covering us and our mountain of gear (or should that be food?) with spindrift. An intense whining noise, swelling in volume, enticed this shiny metal box to slowly inch forward on its skids. Within a few seconds it was bumping its way along the crisp, untouched snow of the glacier. A few seconds more and it was air borne. And now, just a handful of minutes since we had landed on the Tatina Glacier, there was silence again, utter silence, a void of noise – the Otter, our Talkeetna Air Taxi had vanished from sight and with it our lifeline to the outside world. Fantastic.
Twid, a veteran of the area, Philip and myself had come to Alaska to climb some new routes in this esoteric part of the Alaska Range known as the Kitchatna Spires. “So what do you think?” asked Twid, pointing a cam-corder in my face. I expect that I mumbled something about awesome, big, beautiful, but really I was dumbstruck. These adjectives are true of course but what they don’t convey is the exhilarating sense of solitude amidst such grand beauty. This was partly caused by the contrast to our two hour roller coaster flight and partly because, within a 360 degree panorama of perfect sun kissed granite buttresses, big walls, gullies and ice hoses, there was only one known route, climbed in the eighties. It was like being in the Argentier basin in the 1930’s but with the gear and knowledge of the C21st – fantastic indeed.
With a short sledge-pull down the glacier we arrived under our first objective, a 1000m clean snow and ice gully, and the best bit was that its base was a mere twenty minutes flat walk away from our tents. None of this huffing and puffing for hours with heavy sacks to reach a knobbly patch of stony ground amidst endless tanned thighs of fit foreigners. This was luxury, bloody luxury: a trip tailor-made for climbers of yester-year who have never lost there passion but whose fitness levels fluctuate between half yearly trips to the vertical world. So, having pitched the tents a mere two days after leaving Britain we donned our snow shoes and headed over to recce the climb. It promised well: initial snow slopes up to 50 degrees narrowing to a few pitches of what looked like good, clean, steep ice and then opening out in the middle of the climb only to narrow again and maybe some awkward chimneys at the top. Content with our afternoon’s work we scuttled back to the beckoning steak and mash, chocolate brownies with custard and hot chocolate a la rum, “mmmmmm”. The real beauty of flying into a glacier is that you can take too much food. No no, let me rephrase that, you can take what you like, after all it was a holiday.
Day two welcomed us with clear skies and no wind so we duly spent the day plodding up the slopes to a high point at the base of the ice pitches. Twid was in his usual fifth gear whilst Philip and I were pumping away in third and thanking our lucky stars that none of the climbing would be at altitude, another great asset to climbing in the Kitchatnas – base camp @ 8000 feet. In fact, I was gently congratulating myself as it was only two weeks before that I’d received a call from Twid asking if I fancied a ‘new routes’ trip to Alaska. So after ten days of fast track “Oh my god I’ve got to get fit”, here I was, kicking steps up a virgin gully. Ropes fixed, so that we could make a quick ascent to our high point the following day, we shot off down to…..steak and mash.
A day in the tent, with enforced scrabble contests due to a dump of snow, saw us up bright and early the following day. Nearing the top of the fixed ropes with lungs gasping, a voice trickles down: “How ya doing?”, “ Not bad for 40” came my reply. I can’t imagine a better way of dealing with that mid-life milestone than to be climbing an Alaskan snow gully in good company – one way to postpone a mid life crisis anyhow. The next thing I hear is “sex” shouted down from the top of the rope. Oh great, the central narrowing proved to be perfect neve. We shot up two pitches of beautiful off-vertical narrow ice gully to find the exit blocked by a gigantic chock stone the size of a minibus. Now, young Twid was at the top of the rope and about to do battle with the unconsolidated snow wedged in between the gully walls and the boulder when I heard an all too familiar muffled rumble and experienced that shrinking reality feeling when time slows right down and all senses bristle like a Homunculus’. A split second later an avalanche poured through the air, kicked up by the chock stone and sailed over Twid’s head. Fortunately the gully was now about twenty feet wide and as I was belayed to the rock’s side wall, the ‘Express Train’ thumped down next to me and not on me and then thundered off down the gully. “You all right?”…”Yup”… “You all right?”… ”Yeah, let’s get the bloody hell out of here”. Not quite the same as boozing it up with my mates down the local watering hole but all good fun for a 40th. What the heck, more steak beckoned for supper.
3 am: beep, beep, beep, beep, beep. Clothes, boots, stove, lighter, bagel, zips, more clothes etc.… etc. “Who?”, “What?”, “Where?”. Oh yes, an Alpine start, long live Tang. Having reached the avalanche high point by 6 am the next hour was spent achieving the impossible, how to climb vertically through snow the consistency of cheap meringues. It should go without saying by now that I left this particular delight to the 5th gear geezer. That done, we found ourselves an idyllic spot, high to one side of the widening snow slope, where we basked in the sun for two and a half hours whilst it loosened any snow that hadn’t come down the day before. However, as Murphy’s Law dictates, that which you expect or planned for, frequently doesn’t happen. Oh well, it was a special few hours drifting in and out of dozed reality amidst virgin territory. Odd really, how one can feel so at home in an objectively hostile environment. Bliss. As soon as the sun left the gully we ploughed on. A few pitches of easy snow slopes followed by another couple of perfect Scottish Grade 4 gullies, more widening of the gully, a couple of awkward thrutchy wedged boulders and a final few hundred feet of gorgeous HVS granite to the coll. At least it would have been gorgeous in rock boots and gloveless fingers. It was now 4.30pm and snow was falling, we just had time enough to down a couple of “Take 5s” – an unusually good combination of Snickers Bar around pretzels, before starting our 19 pitch ab-descent. You do the maths, with two pieces of gear on every belay, that’s a lot of booty left on the hill.
After a rest day where we moved camp back up the glacier to be nearer a hanging glacier fed by many gullies, we had another snow dump, light but enough to force us to reinvent the rules of scrabble. So, 3 am followed with the usual automatic pilot kicking in for an hour, to find us at the base of a wide snow gully, which had looked good from the tents. We were in luck: a consistent angle of snow slopes, twisting and turning through cathedral like granite walls, and the excitement of not knowing what would be round the next corner. It gave me the same feeling of enjoyment as I get when driving down small switch backed country roads in the summer, with high banks and a canopy of trees overhead: an intense, childlike enjoyment of the journey tinged with excitement of an unknown journeys end. This was exactly what I had come to Alaska for – adventure.
Our next new route was totally hidden from view and only sniffed out with Twid’s ‘New route nose’ hungry for action. In contrast to the previous routes this one seemed to curve round and into the mountain like a giant helter skelter, steepening and narrowing as it rose and presenting us with increasingly harder snow and ice, each pitch just getting better and better. It was one of those gems which we felt privileged to climb, all in perfect conditions with a new summit thrown in for good measure and no one, absolutely no one, for tens of miles around.
Now we had come to our pre-arranged four-day window for pick up. Stories of sitting on your sacks for 15 days waiting for the plane to turn up, each day having to stamp a fresh 1500 foot by 20 foot runway through knee-deep snow, ached through my head that morning. However, as our run of fortuitous conditions for Alaska continued and we completed the task in a record 4 hours flat, the welcoming whine of the single prop greeted us bang on cue. As if the trip couldn’t get any better, Paul the pilot treated us to a final magical mystery tour of hidden delights. More unclimbed buttresses, clean granite walls and gullies than I could imagine. The cynic could say he was just wetting our appetite to go back again and employ his planes, but really, even though he has been flying in and around that area for many years, he was simply enjoying the prospect of new routing in perfect Alpine scenery as much as we were. Am I going back again? You bet.
New Routes Climbed:
Biff Bash Bosh! ED 900m Scottish VII E1 19 Pitches, Twid and Simon
Cool Coulior. D 800m Scottish V 15 Pitches, Twid. Philip, Simon
The Whack and Dangle Sculpture. D 1000m Scottish V Twid, Simon, Philip